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USA prospects face daunting decision

US Soccer introduced its new Development Academy calendar to considerable controversy in...
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Kyle McCarthy

Kyle McCarthy writes about the beautiful game for FOX Soccer, the Boston Herald and several other publications. Follow him on Twitter.

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Thousands of teenagers swarmed fields across the United States this week as the high school season ramps up in various parts of the country.

One percent of those potential high school stars chose a different path.

WORTH THE COSTS

Investment in youth coaching remains top priority in USA soccer.

Instead of suiting up with their local peers, they earned a spot with a Development Academy club to aid their development with an eye toward progressing to college and professional soccer. They sacrificed the opportunity to take the field with their former teammates to participate in a 10-month season designed to hone their skills and prepare them for greater challenges.

US Soccer introduced its exhaustive Development Academy calendar to considerable controversy in Feb. 2012 and fully implemented the schedule in time for the 2012-13 campaign. All participating clubs – 88 in the recently introduced U-13/14 age bracket, 79 in the U-15/16 and U-17/18 age brackets for the 2013/14 season – now adhere to a schedule that starts in September and ends in July with a concentrated emphasis on quality training sessions and matches.

The additional workload came with a caveat: no Development Academy player may participate in external competitions. No club soccer. No high school soccer. Nothing to impair the instructions and the lessons taught within the Development Academy system.

“If we want our players to someday compete against the best in the world, it is critical for their development that they train and play as much as possible and in the right environment,” US coach Jürgen Klinsmann said in a press release when the federation announced the changes in Feb. 2012. “The Development Academy 10-month season is the right formula and provides a good balance between training time and playing competitive matches. This is the model that the best countries around the world use for their programs and I think it makes perfect sense that we do, as well.”

Most countries use similar development models because national team programs require economies of scale to stock their rosters. Youth development structures -- even at the top clubs in the world -- do not guarantee a certain of number of talented prospects will churn through the pipeline at any given time. They require a mass of potential contributors and a willingness to cull the best from that group in order to thrive. It is an arduous and fitful task, even with all of the best curricula and practices implemented across the board.

More than a few players will find themselves caught in the undertow along the way. They selected this path, a route away from the relative normalcy of club and high school matches and toward a novel concept designed to satisfy their ambitions in other ways. Few of them actually tread far enough along the road after their Development Academy career concludes to meet those lofty ends. The natural stopping point imposed by their abilities inevitably falls short of the expectations set forth along the way.

The sobering reality prompts some introspection about the fallout from the exclusive nature of the program itself. In its haste to mold the next generation, the Development Academy program strips away much of the normalcy from the teenagers it houses. The kids spend most of their time shuttling to and from games and training sessions. The exacting demands leave little room from them to interact with their classmates outside school hours or take part in the functions commonplace for American teenagers. The hopeful participants concede a large part of their teenage years for a remote shot at carving out a professional career or starring at a Division I school.

Concerns about the impact of those exchanges carry relatively little weight elsewhere in the world. These issues -- altered approaches to familiar teenage progressions, college programs itching for talented players, social and societal norms influencing player development structures -- remain unique to the United States. They present a conundrum and a discussion that will continue to unfold as the years progress as parents and players continue to weigh the personal benefits and costs of participating in the Development Academy.

No such indecision arises about the sporting benefits of the system, though. The Development Academy system funnels a healthy portion of the top players from the disparate methods employed by a patchwork network of clubs and high schools into an increasingly refined system with cultivated methods across the board. It is by no means perfect yet, but it provides a firmer, more controlled and ultimately necessary foundation to build for the future.

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“We have a really clear and consistent pathway now,” US Soccer director of scouting Tony Lepore said during a question and answer session with ussoccer.com this week. “It’s not for everyone, but it’s for those that want to make the commitment and have the dedication and motivation to reach their full potential. We are seeing the benefits for players of continuously spending time in the best everyday environment. That’s what the Development Academy clubs represent.”

Those clubs will continue to present a stark choice for promising players in the coming years. Scores of MLS players can attest to the variety of ways to reach the top level in the United States. The next generation benefits from the choices -- including the enticing finishing school provided by the Development Academy -- available. Only the promising prospects themselves can decide whether they want to adhere to the established, if fundamentally flawed, practices or pursue a different, more arduous path toward their objectives.

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